Highway to Inferno: On the Road with the Oregon Proud Boys
Law-and-order rebels. Freedom-loving fascists. What makes the far right tick?
“My daddy served in the Army, where he lost his right eye
But he flew a flag out in our yard ‘till the day that he died”
Toby Keith’s daddy isn’t the only one. I’m idling on a sun-baked Oregon interstate just south of Portland, surrounded by lifted trucks carrying on the Keith tradition. The light summer breeze makes the countless flags dance in the shimmering heat. Trump 2020. Blue Lives Matter. American. Punisher. Gadsden. Confederate.
I don’t have flags myself, but Toby Keith at full volume with the windows rolled down seems like a decent substitute. After all, if you’re going undercover to provide live updates on a far-right event, it’s important to act the part.
The music is something more than tradecraft. Sure, I haven’t listened to “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” unironically for years. But I did listen to it sincerely at one time, and the truth is there’s part of me I can’t get rid of that loves this dumb song. I let myself sing along, words embedded in my brain from way back:
“And you’ll be sorry you messed with the U S of A,
We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way!”
Sometimes I miss the simplicity of words like these. I miss being young and stupid and brainwashed, waiting for high school to end and my 18th birthday to arrive so I could sign my enlistment papers and go fight for what I’d been told was freedom and democracy overseas. Flush my potential down the toilet to chase half-baked dreams of power and respect. I wasn’t much for country music at the time, but this song was a rare exception.
Maybe part of the reason I keep going to these far-right events is to relive that fantasy, just for a little while.
It’s September 7th — Labor Day — and I’m a single gas-burning cog in a long machine winding down the interstate: the Oregon for Trump 2020 Labor Day Cruise Rally. I’ve just spent the last couple hours wandering maskless through a horde of maskless COVID deniers, a stupid risk I’ve decided to take anyway for reasons I’ve chosen not to explore too deeply. Cheering when the Trump supporters cheer, shouting when they shout. Recording everything with a big smile. Make-up and a smile will get you surprisingly far in this world, I’ve found.
I record friendly families with patriotic T-shirts and toddlers in “Hidin’ from Biden” onesies. Bikers with “Pipe-Hitters Union” embroidered on leather vests. A woman with a magnificent ass hanging out of her Daisy Dukes, her man’s arm firmly about her waist. Maybe my camera lingers a little long on that one.
It’s hard to estimate how many flag-flying vehicles are here between the three large parking lots of Clackamas Community College, located just south of Portland. I estimate at least 500, with a wider variety of license plates than one might expect for an event in the middle of Oregon if one hadn’t attended such an event before. Lots of Washington plates. Idaho. A few from as far as Wyoming and Utah.
As I walk down the aisles, I begin to notice obscured or missing plates. Maybe one in fifteen, one in twenty. A plateless school bus painted black. A lifted truck with dealer plates and no temporary numbers in the window. At the center of the rally, I encounter an entire row of vehicles with license plates meticulously obscured by blue painter’s tape.
As I quietly snap pictures of this blatant legal violation, a speaker loudly proclaims the values of the folks gathered here today to thunderous applause. “We believe in America! President Trump! Law and Order!”
The speaker keeps going and I keep recording. These numberless plates remind me of revving engines in the darkness, the now-familiar scramble for the sidewalk.
The iconography of the noble American truck running down the effete communist protester has moved from your uncle’s Facebook page and into the real world: an omnipresent danger to anyone who stands in the street with a Black Lives Matter sign.
At least 66 incidents of attempted vehicular homicide in the first 42 days of protest alone, countless more attempts across the country in the sixty-plus days since. Not to mention all the other dangerous fun made possible by a fast-moving vehicle: consequence-free opportunities to mace or paintball your enemies, maybe shoot indiscriminately at them with a 9mm pistol.
How much easier to get away with it when your license plates are covered?
I see confessions of ill intent. Dreams of violence. A desire to put the proverbial boot in the ass of the enemy.
It is, as Toby Keith likes to say, the American way.
How do these blued-out plates square with law and order?
Ask a Proud Boy how he feels about breaking the law: he’s against it. He’s not lying. He truly believes it when he says it. But observe his stance on extralegal kicking of Antifa ass — running them down in the streets in a vehicle without license plates, assaulting them with deadly weapons — and you’ll find he supports this also.
It’s tempting to dismiss the contradiction as hypocrisy or a lie or a grift, but it’s worse than that. There’s a resolution for these seeming contradictions that unlocks the entire ideology of the far right, solves the whole damn problem of these earnest and hard-working unemployed American citizens, these law-and-order rebels.
These freedom-loving fascists.
A direct example of this non-contradiction occurs later, around 4:00 PM, when the last few Trump Rally cars trickle into Oregon’s capital: Salem, about 45 miles south of Portland. There’s an All Lives Matter rally in progress here.
I arrive maybe 10 minutes too late for the excitement of the actual fight. All I see is Proud Boys in black-and-gold T-shirts hyped up on victory. Standing ready in their body armor, equipped with all manner of gear: AR-15s and handguns and carbines and baseball bats and batons and mace and armored gloves and paintball guns. Tensed for more combat. Waiting and hoping, keyed up, ready to party.
And here comes press, wandering in to ask uncomfortable questions about the thing that just happened.
The Proud Boys swarm, rush across the green of the State Capital lawn to challenge this new opponent. “Fake press!” someone shouts, and the cry catches on throughout the crowd that rapidly surrounds three of the journalists:
“Hide behind your press pass!”
“We know what side you’re on!”
Chandler Pappas, the man present when a fellow far-right protester Aaron “Jay” Danielson was shot and killed in Portland two weeks back, shoves a megaphone into a journalist’s face. “Tell me what happened to my partner wasn’t an execution!” he screams. Red-faced and furious.
Another protester takes up the cry. The crowd surges towards the unlucky reporter — Brian Conley, who at this point has decided to exit the situation — and hurls invective at his back.
It takes a few seconds for anyone to do anything but cheer. Eventually, however, one of the angriest of Conley’s accosters steps forward. “No, no!” he exclaims. “I’m not gonna let you get shot at!”
“I’ll even hug you, dude.” The protester, Kareem Patton, forcefully throws an arm over the reporter, who visibly leans away as the far-right activist shouts maskless into his face. “I will never let anyone put their hands on you. But know that what you did was disrespectful. I love you bro. I don’t want to see anything happen to you. But you were being provocative…”
“We aren’t like that!” several others exclaim almost in tandem. The crowd cheers this sentiment as loudly as they did everything else.
It’s a weird thing to say, and a weird thing to cheer, since they were exactly like that 30 seconds ago. Hell, Patton is still defending it. But they’re not like that now. They would never do the thing they just did.
Impossible as it seems, they believe this.
I find out later that they were even more exactly like that 25 minutes earlier, when this same group of Proud Boys charged and attacked a small group of Black Lives Matter counter-protesters. A Proud Boy hit one of the counter-protesters in the back of the helmet with a baton as he fled. Another tackled a counter-protester to the ground, then punched him in the back of the head repeatedly until someone else decided to turn the prone and motionless Black Lives Matter activist over and cover his face with orange mace.
You can hear laughter in the video. Everyone was having a great time.
Moments later, this same group brought down a lone kid with a “Black Lives Matter sign” like wolves hunting a gazelle. The police, to their credit, intervened immediately and arrested two of the attackers. These attackers were, of course, both released shortly thereafter and not charged with a crime.
I guess the police don’t think they’re “like that” either.
Ask the people who beat and maced fleeing counter-protesters, ask the people who laughed and cheered: they’ll tell you they’re for peace. They’ll believe it, and their belief makes other people believe it. Their sincerity is obvious and clear. Reporters believe it — at least, the ones who don’t get paintballed. Bystanders believe it. People watching YouTube videos believe it.
I believed it once, when I walked into the middle of Patriot Prayer’s first big rally on June 4th, 2017. I’d come to protest against the far-right group — people I’d been told were Nazis — and I wanted to see them up close. What I saw instead was Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson fervently espousing peace and love and tolerance. And anyone could see he believed every word.
I needed to know more. Was this man a threat to my community or an overzealous protector of free speech? It took me two years, nine interviews, several riots, and a college thesis to answer that question. To understand that Joey Gibson is dangerous in a way skinheads can only dream of.
Any asshole can lie. We’ve all been lied to, we know what it looks like. But how can you protect yourself against someone willing to lie to themselves? Or, rather: someone whose conception of truth has been replaced with something else, like a parasitic wasp devouring its host from the inside?
The intellectual parasite devours the eyes and the mind, morality and truth, and replaces it with a single, larval axiom: We are always good. The enemy is always evil.
A tiny sentence, embarrassingly crude. Small and simple, just like any virus
For the Proud Boys, for Trump Supporters, for any committed member of the far right, all truth proceeds from this simple and unexamined premise. The question is no longer: what is true about the world? The question is: since I already know my side is right, what needs to be true to prove it?
If you spend enough time with your eyes wide open around the far right, you’ll start to see it too. You’ll see it lurking behind ridiculous fake news stories about the Democrats, those Facebook posts your uncle keeps sharing. You’ll see it in press conferences. You’ll hear it in Twitter arguments. Once you begin to see it, you won’t be able to stop.
The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have both given speeches about the importance of love and forgiveness today: about taking the high road, about nonviolence in the face of evil. Their words of peace and victimhood are not an act. They aren’t violent or aggressive, they can’t be. If peaceful protest is good, if American values like freedom and tolerance are good, then they must believe those things too. The axiom demands it.
And if they beat down some kid with a Black Lives Matter sign? If they crack the skull of some weaponless fleeing person, tackle an unarmed protester and mace him in the face from 6 inches away, those people must deserve it. They posed a threat, they had to be stopped. The axiom demands that too.
(Have you noticed I could be talking about the police here? Have you noticed the similar reasoning at play for both parties?)
It’s not just for the outside audience, either. An hour after the press fight, far away from any camera but my own surreptitiously-recording phone, I overhear a group of Proud Boys talking about how the Black Lives Matter protesters assaulted them during the earlier confrontation.
“They maced me, they threw acid — battery acid, they threw it on us, you know?” Some armed kid, some young guy. “It fucked me up a little bit.”
“So that’s what that fucking smell was,” his friend chimes in immediately. “Acid. I didn’t even think about that! I was thinking it was concrete mixed with something else.”
“No, it was battery acid! It burned like shit. Everyone got it off their skin and it was still — look, look! He has a little bit, right there.”
The Proud Boy motions to his friend’s pants, which are clearly streaked with beige paint. Universal agreement on this story, never mind the absence of blisters and chemical burns that would accompany an actual acid attack. A slight tingling sensation, combined with an axiomatic need to create monsters of their enemies, is all they require to come up with this impossible fiction.
They are performing for no one. They are performing for themselves.
It’s around this time — maybe five minutes later — that I’m asked to step aside by a man holding a loaded rifle.
“We’ve received reports,” he tells me quietly, “that you’re Antifa.”
I meet his cold gaze behind yellow ballistic goggles. “That’s not true,” I say, voice steady and a bit surprised. “I’m an American and a Christian.”
Part of me believes it in that moment. It has to be true, if I’m going to walk out of here. My own personal axiom.
He calls forward a witness — also armed — who accuses me of surreptitiously filming: an accusation that I surreptitiously film. I should review my footage to help me write this, as I have throughout this piece. I should watch it again to make sure I’m remembering it right. But I can’t, because what I remember more than anything is staring at the gun, the mace clipped to the man’s body armor as I allow myself to half-know that I’m alone — no press, no counter-protesters, no one to help me or even witness this. I’ve stayed too late, took one too many risks somewhere along the line, and now I’m in deep shit.
And as I keep my face and demeanor shocked and hurt and feminine and vulnerable, I experience a skin-crawling realization that if these men were sure about who I was — if they were 100% positive — I could be hurt. I could die.
As it turns out, I’m not ready to relive that moment. The footage remains unwatched.
I open my mouth and let nonsense pour forth: stream-of-conscious, guileless, dull but harmless. I babble about how I didn’t even intend to come down here but it was so good to meet fellow patriots that I had to, and that I never meant to make anyone uncomfortable, and I —
The cold-eyed man cuts me off and tells me plenty more people have seen me do suspicious things today. He motions to call over more armed men and I realize this might be my last chance to get out of here before mob mentality kicks on. Before someone figures out I’m still recording, right now. Before the axiom’s algorithm transforms me from a woman to be protected into an enemy to be smashed.
I clutch my purse and raise my voice.
“You know what? If you all really think I’m Antifa? I’m out of here. I just wanted to have a nice day, but I guess I’m not welcome here and I’m going to leave.”
I move to walk away and — today at least — they allow me to exit the park.
My car roars up I5 towards Portland, stereo blasting early German industrial as I try to outrun my own carelessness, my reckless stupidity, the reality of what could have happened just now. The sky above me is changing. The sunlight paradise of earlier this morning — the dry heat, the fluttering breeze — created a perfect cradle for the fires just beginning to devour the forests east of Salem. I recognize the growing strangeness of the light from my childhood in Colorado, where such fires occur regularly: the twisting yellow-red air, the sun an alien disc in the sky, the world sinking deeper and deeper into vermillion ashen hell.
These fires will continue to rage across the West Coast until by Friday over 10% of Oregon’s population is under evacuation notice. They rage still as I write this. Smoke yellow as sulphur hangs heavy over Portland as the city waits to discover whether or not the flames will reach its doors.
Sometimes the world changes too fast, sometimes the old days die and you never even notice they’re gone until it’s almost too late. I’m creeping up towards 80 miles per hour as the sky darkens. The music is too loud: songs of alienation and fear in a language I barely understand.
There’s really no point in speeding.
The thing I’m running from, like the smoke, is everywhere.